The spiritual father is supposed to be a standard part of our Orthodox life, but in North America there are vast numbers of Orthodox who don’t work with a spiritual father. I was reminded of this when listening to a podcast this morning about a new offering from Holy Trinity Publications. The person being interviewed recommended that before anyone reads the book then sets off on some new ascetically undertaking, they should consult their spiritual father. In the US, in particular, many parishes rarely offer confession, and many parishioners rarely seek it out. This is in keeping with the American tendency toward self-help, which is often just thinly veiled egotism. The advantage of working with a spiritual father is that they both have experience in the spiritual life, which means they likely know more about it than you do, and they can often see through some of the false assumptions you as an individual may be operating under.
I had a recent circumstance which very much goes to the issue of getting an expert guide. I’m an avid wheelchair tennis player (if not a particularly good one), and recently participated in a tournament in Arizona. My wrist had been a little bit sore going into the weekend, then became increasingly “cranky” in the midst of a Saturday full of matches. I approached the trainer, who has been fixing people’s physical ills for many years, and asked him to work on my wrist. His response? “Let me work on your shoulder first.” I looked at him a bit odd, as my shoulder felt fine. I mean, really fine. So, I restated my desire for him to work on my wrist. He repeated that he wanted to work on my shoulder first, so I acquiesced. As he worked on my shoulder and the incredible tightness began to release, a tightness that I hadn’t noticed at all, he explained that my reduced range of motion in my shoulder was putting an excessive load on my wrist. He finished with my shoulder, worked on some forearm tightness, then taped my wrist. As I was leaving to go play my next match, he simply said, “yeah, it was just your wrist.”
We do the same with our spiritual life. We don’t notice things that are seriously wrong, and focus on symptoms instead. Unfortunately, it is often the case that without fixing the bigger issues, the symptoms will never really go away.